Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas announced a $10 million commitment to the Texas A&M University Health Science Center on Tuesday morning that officials from both entities said will help to implement solutions to health care challenges and disparities facing rural communities in Texas.

Carrie L. Byington, senior vice president of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine, was one of several Texas A&M officials to express gratitude to BCBSTX for its financial support and its belief in the university's ability to work alongside rural Texans to navigate their health care challenges.

Byington said Tuesday that the partnership will lead, in time, to improved health care delivery, improve quality of health outcomes and work to lower costs for rural Texans.

"A&M is deeply committed to our land grant mission," Byington said. "Today's announcement with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas highlights our commitment. Working together, we can leverage our strengths. This partnership between an academic health sciences center and an insurer and provider brings together important stakeholders."

Byington said in her remarks that 185 Texas counties have no psychiatrist, 147 Texas counties do not have an obstetrician or gynecologist, and 35 counties in the state have no physicians at all. A release from the Center added that 80 Texas counties have five physicians or fewer.

The joint project will bring together the expertise of more than 20 cross-disciplinary researchers across eight colleges at Texas A&M University -- the Health Science Center's colleges of dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and public health, along with the colleges of agriculture, education and engineering. Focus areas of the project will include ambulatory rural care delivery systems, rural hospital function and future, community empowerment, and technology and health information.

The press conference, held at the Doug Pitcock '49 Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center, also featured supportive remarks from Texas A&M President Michael K. Young and Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp.

BCBSTX President Dan McCoy encouraged greater understanding of the depth and breadth of challenges facing rural Texans when it comes to health care.

"Many people think there is a solution and you can just plop it down into a community. But the challenge is that the complexities of this problem are way bigger than that," he said.

McCoy said accessing specialty care can be especially difficult, and that some Texans have to travel 50 miles or much more for services that others take for granted. McCoy referred to the $10 million as an investment that would help his company -- which has a presence in all 254 Texas counties -- more effectively serve Texans. 

"This partnership will help us see what those models of care are that can be delivered to these communities to help solve the problems. We're excited that the Health Science Center can help to incubate those ideas and be able to develop models that will help not just Texas, but the nation as a whole," McCoy said. 

The funds also will bolster the work of the Center for Optimizing Rural Health, a technical advisory center based out of the A&M Rural and Community Health Institute. Nancy Dickey, the institute's director, said following the news conference that the collaboration will help the institute -- and others from across the Texas A&M University System -- to get more creative and better serve Texas residents.

Medical and nursing students would likely be part of the solutions that come out of the collaboration, Dickey said, and added that university leaders were looking at having students be able to do rural rotations as part of their educational process.

"Telemedicine is clearly going to be part of the solution, whether it's bringing specialists to the small town, or perhaps bringing 'souped up' EMTs in ambulances who can begin following a physician's orders on the way to the hospital," Dickey said. Telemedicine is defined as remote delivery of heath care services, and Dickey and others said that increasing high-speed internet access will be an essential aspect of improving health care services statewide.

Shara McClure, BCBSTX vice president of Health Care Delivery, said they hope to help rural community leaders and members to explore a variety of health care options.

"Historically, you think about these rural communities that have health care needs, and ... the solution was to build a hospital," she said. "These hospitals are finding that they can't stay open, can't stay financially viable, so let's think about something different.

"Do we necessarily need a hospital? Could we just have some sort of clinic and transportation to a larger hospital? Let's get more creative, more convenient, and more affordable ways of serving health needs."

BCBSTX market president of Houston and Southeast Texas Bob Morrow said after the press conference that Texas A&M's ability to reach out to all parts of the state factored heavily into the company's decision to partner with the Health Science Center.

"A&M's breadth in terms of its ability to bring in ... and leverage different disciplines that you might not traditionally think of in terms of health care -- like engineering, or the Mays Business School -- involving them and looking at health care through a different lens allows the opportunity for unique and truly innovative solutions," Morrow said.

"Rural health care needs moonshots. That's what we're doing with this collaborative project between two entities with similar missions," said Steven Brown, associate vice president of clinical strategy at the Health Science Center. "By combining our expertise, we can create actionable insights to improve health care access, quality and delivery across the state, nation and world."

The Texas A&M Health Science Center was formed in 1999 to bring together the health-related disciplines across the university system, according to a release.

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